U.S. plutonium pit production: Key updates

By Greg Mello

Fundamental technical and political issues remain unresolved in plans to produce new plutonium pits for U.S. nuclear weapons. These plans aim at building and operating two pit factories to meet an Administration requirement (pp. 1, 5-6), subsequently made into law (50 U.S.C. 2538a; refined at Pub. L. 115-232, ยง3120), for an enduring production capacity of at least 80 pits per year (ppy) beginning in 2030. The plans call for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF) to produce 50 ppy and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) plutonium facility (PF-4) to produce 30 ppy. Despite fully funding the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA's) pit production budget through fiscal year 2020 (FY20), Congress remains unsure about NNSA's approach, which independent reviews have criticized. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) notes (e-p. 2) that no detailed plan and schedule have been prepared for pit production.

The only authorized warhead program needing new pits is the W87-1 warhead for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), to begin production in 2030. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted in August 2020 that GBSD missiles would have the capability to carry three warheads each, up to 1,200 deployed warheads in all (p. 11). The ~540 W87 warheads available (p. 3) are not enough to provide this capability, if deployed on GBSD directly; neither can they provide enough re-used pits to build W87-1s for the same purpose. Even if rushed, planned pit production may be unable to meet the W87-1 schedule (e-p. 2; also pp. 29-38).

Pit production authorization and funding for FY21

Congress authorizes defense programs in each year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and funds them in appropriations acts. In late July, the House and Senate versions of the FY21 NDAA (H.R. 6395 and S. 4049 respectively) each authorized the full requested amount for NNSA's Weapons Activities budget line ($15.60 billion), including the pit production budget in every detail. A final NDAA has not yet been agreed.

There were concerns. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) draft FY21 NDAA requires (p. 417) a nationwide review of plutonium infrastructure by the GAO. The SASC also sees that the tentative assignment of the surplus plutonium oxidation mission to LANL's main plutonium facility (PF-4) strongly competes with LANL's pit production mission, as GAO has warned. The SASC requests a report detailing oxidation options by March 1, 2021. Currently, the plutonium from surplus pits stored at Pantex is to be oxidized at LANL's PF-4 and then sent to the Savannah River Site (SRS) to be packaged and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico for final disposal.

In its markup of the FY21 NDAA, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) added Section 3115 (pp. 2284-2287), which seems intended to halt pit production at the SRPPF while providing a means of accepting a delay for "up to five years," (p. vii) in the 80 ppy requirement (the Senate had no comparable provision). SRS production, if paused or canceled this way, would be replaced by "temporarily surging the production of such pits at [LANL] and other mitigation strategies." The feasibility of any LANL "surge" is however uncertain at best. NNSA's 2017 Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) found that any PF-4 "surge" was infeasible (p. 2); NNSA's 2018 Engineering Analysis (EA) found that the alternative involving a surge had by far the highest risk (Alt. 2c, slide 8); in 2019 the Institute for Defense Analyses found that any surge in PF-4 would be "very high risk" (p. vii). GAO recently cited a classified LANL study which found that LANL was only "marginally capable" of reaching 30 ppy by 2026 "and sustaining that rate thereafter" (p. 35).

This year's appropriations process has been slow. The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) expiring on December 11, 2020, which limits Department of Energy (DOE) expenditures to FY20 levels for each budget line and prevents new programs and projects.

Prior to the CR, the House passed an appropriations bill (H.R. 7617) that provides $1.08 billion for pit production in FY21, $0.29 billion less than requested but $0.37 billion more than enacted the previous year. The bill cuts $135 million from SRS's and $157 million from LANL's pit production accounts while allowing most (at LANL) or all (at SRS) funds requested for pit infrastructure (pp. 170-171).

The Administration's budget request for FY21 for pit production ("Plutonium Modernization") was $1.39 billion, a dramatic increase from the $0.80 billion and $0.41 billion spent in FY20 and FY19, respectively. An additional $0.24 billion in FY21 was requested in other infrastructure improvements for pit production at LANL, as identified by Senator Heinrich (D-NM), bringing the nationwide FY21 total to $1.62 billion. Including these pit infrastructure projects, the projected FY19-25 total for pit production is $11.67 billion, of which $7.58 billion is earmarked for LANL, $4.09 billion for SRS, and $0.52 billion for other sites (slide 23).

In its report on the draft funding bill, the House Committee on Appropriations notes NNSA has no detailed plan for pit production:

The Committee remains concerned that NNSA has not prioritized the development of a resource-loaded integrated master schedule that includes all pit production-related, project-related and program activities as recommended by the GAO and does not appear to have plans to complete such a schedule until after it would have had to achieve certain pit production milestones. (p. 140)

A GAO report released on September 30 found that "NNSA's plutonium program...has not yet completed an integrated schedule for the overall pit production effort" (e-p. 2). NNSA is directed to submit such a plan within 30 days of enactment.

Noting that the risk of failure is high, the Committee also requires that NNSA submit, by 120 days after enactment, a contingency plan for managing the stockpile in the event the 2030 pit production deadline is not met. This contingency plan must be updated annually and submitted with the budget request. The plan must include:

options to ramp up pit production that extend the current need dates for pit production; how the hedge and fielded stockpile could be configured to serve as an interim solution; and an estimate of how many years current pit production need dates could be extended by advancing pit reuse concepts. (p. 140)

These appropriations requirements are binding even if omitted in the final conference report as long as they are not explicitly negated or modified.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted.


CBO estimates the marginal pit cost at a 50-ppy SRPPF at $6 million (p. 14), an order of magnitude higher than the $300-750 million estimated by NNSA (p. 22). LANL's costs may be far higher. In 2017 the cost of establishing an average 30 ppy production in the now-ended Plutonium Sustainment program (which "differs significantly" from today's at least 30 ppy requirement; see AoA, p. 1) at LANL was thought to be $3 billion (slide 2). GAO used a similar figure ("up to $3 billion," p. 15). Yet requested pit production startup costs at LANL are $7.6 billion through FY25 (slide 23) and will be about $14 billion through 2030 (slide 29).

One of the reasons for this great increase is the newly-revealed necessity of running PF-4 and surrounding facilities on a 24/7 basis (two production shifts and a maintenance shift) to achieve even 20 ppy (p. 15), necessitating a much larger staff and more support facilities and infrastructure. NNSA has now indicated indirectly that LANL needs 4,000 production and support staff to achieve 30 ppy (slide 29).

Assuming a steady-state production assumption of 43 ppy (AoA, p. 13, more optimistic than GAO's 30 ppy, p. 16), four reasonable production scenarios generate a cost per LANL pit in the range of $38-60 million (slides 29-31), almost an order of magnitude more than at SRS and two orders of magnitude beyond NNSA's estimate.

It is not possible to credibly predict future pit production at LANL, nor will it be, at least not until 2025 given the unresolved problems flagged by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) (slides 6-15), some of which may be resolved by then (slide 21).

For the long-standing issue of legacy transuranic (TRU) waste disposition, there is no timely solution. There are roughly 19,000 drums and other containers of TRU stored at LANL, with thousands of these in an unsafe condition above-ground near the public and other thousands in long-term but temporary shallow burial, subject to corrosion. Storage capacity for new TRU waste from pit production is also inadequate (pp. A-13,14).

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance

NNSA has issued final NEPA documents for pit production, including a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF) pit production complex at SRS (September 2020, EIS-0541), a Final Supplement Analysis (SA) for the continued operation of LANL under conditions of pit production (August 2020, DOE/EIS-0380-SA-06), and a Final SA for nationwide NNSA and DOE operations under conditions of pit production (December 2019, DOE/EIS-0236-S4-SA-02). Records of Decision (RODs) (site-wide, nationwide) have been issued for industrial pit production at LANL and SRS (project-specific, nationwide). Serious questions have been raised about the adequacy of these NEPA processes but no litigation has yet been filed.